Once again, Yours Truly has been accused of writing Purple Prose!
My first thought was which color I was using because my usual font color is black. Then it quickly occurred to me that I really do tend, at times, to lean toward the morbidly obese verbiage when it comes to richly compiled sentences. What I have just written may be an unworthy example of it.
I suppose we are all guilty of flowery language and purple prose when we are writing. At least sometime. It’s not really that we want to show off. It’s not that the scene or the character really needs it in order to be authentic. After all, it slows down the reading, makes the reader have to work harder to comprehend what is happening, and in the end it doesn’t garner us any kudos for our highly honed verbal wordplay.
A while ago, I had a linguistic joust with a colleague who swore she was going to write a blog post on the subject of purple prose. One thing that came from that exchange was the idea that metaphors and, in particular, how a writer can build a beautiful, poignant metaphor can substitute for purple prose or flowery language.
My one and only venture into urban fantasy, my so-called vampire novel A DRY PATCH OF SKIN, provides useful examples. Its well-read protagonist pulls metaphors out of thin air left and right, so I was able to pull a couple of convenient examples. Let’s deconstruct one of them to see how a simple-worded metaphor can stand in for flowery language or purple prose.
[Set-up: At this point in the story, our protagonist suspects he is transforming into a vampire, which is something he doesn’t want. Facing this desperate situation and, with no other recourse, he turns to God – with whom he has been feuding during his search for a cure. The following paragraph comes after the end of the soliloquy (spoken aloud in the story); the novel is a standard first-person narrative.]
A flake of snow alighted on my nose, then more flurries fell around me. Probably it was God sending me a sign, but as usual nicely disguised and suitably vague. But I did not stop to gaze at the snowflakes. I knew they would melt. They always do. And become someone’s tears.
Not a high-brow word in that entire paragraph.
Sentence #1 is merely a statement about the weather. Some readers may instantly latch onto snow as a metaphor, but that would only be because we have been trained through all of our previous reading of the literary canon and so much bad poetry to think that way. But here snow is snow, pure and simple.
In Sentence #2, the protagonist himself makes the comparison between the snow flurries and a message from God, and by extension, so does the reader. His personalized assessment of the message (disguised, vague) gives us some of his (the protagonist’s) mindset, further building the metaphor. Hence, if the sudden snow falling upon him is a message from God, it is typically vague, thus requiring him to interpret the message.
Sentence #3 is a bit of a switchback on the road to metaphor. He takes the snow as a message from God but refuses to get caught up in interpreting the message. Essentially, he is saying: “Take that, God! I’m not going to play your game.”
Sentence #4 becomes a rebuttal to Sentence #3: He did not concern himself with the snow because he knew the flakes would melt. In a metaphorical sense, the symbols that snowflakes represent will melt, hence become nothing (in a moral sense) – or in a practical, realistic way, nothing of significance.
Sentence #5 is simply a trailing fragment of Sentence #4 but, left as a fragment, it becomes a separate, added comment rather than part of the original comment of Sentence #4. The effect is two separate ideas, not one combined idea. There is a difference. If one wanted to, a semi-colon would probably work just as well to join these two sentences.
A day after writing the paragraph, I returned to read through it and make sure it said what I wanted it to say and felt the way I wanted it to feel. Then. almost as a whim, I added the final sentence. Just four simple words.
Sentence #6. Here is the metaphor: the leap of linkage between a fact of snow falling, a character’s thoughts about God that are sparked by the snow falling, then a rebuttal or dismissal of those thoughts, and finally the tears. Snow obviously does not become actual tears. That happens only in the imaginary sense. It is the character who, like many people might, makes that comparison.
That is what metaphor is.
I’ve been reading a fascinating book about metaphor (I is an Other) in which author James Geary declares that everything is a metaphor. Said another way: If it is not the actual, physical thing itself, it can only be a description of the thing (my words), hence metaphor. He further elaborates on the brain’s unique ability to form patterns from each and every experience we have, physical and intellectual. Then, upon encountering a new experience, the brain relies on the patterns it has already stored to determine if the new thing is in any way like something we previously encountered. Metaphor is that practice of pattern-forming. This is like that, therefore, I can identify certain properties of this new thing which match that old thing, and I’m ahead in the game of identification.
But I digress….
In fiction writing, we do not use metaphor for survival or to make patterns per se, but rather as shortcuts, as more interesting ways of introducing emotions, connections, and other perhaps esoteric claptrap. Sometimes they work, sometimes not.* But purple prose and flowery language can be dismissed in favor of the carefully constructed metaphor which, in the end, is usually going to be more powerful and more beautiful than a stream of haughty, vainglorious words themselves.
*My first novel, AFTER ILIUM, has sections of “flowery language” – ’tis true, I admit! – but I believed it was appropriate, reflecting the romantic hero’s mindset as he works his way through a seduction and an affair. Conversely, once the affair ends and cold, hard reality is thrust upon him, the writing style becomes quite lean, even terse, matching the effort he must put forth to survive – where there is no room for frivolous thought or the luxury of metaphors.